My wife and I watch an intense thriller or horror film around once a month. We ramp it up every October to around 10 horror films to celebrate Hallowe’en. I admit there were a couple films on this list she couldn’t finish and I don’t blame her… although she did make it to the end of Martyrs, so who knows what qualifies as too much? And why do we enjoy scary films, anyway? Probably for the same reason we stop and gaze at a car accident: it is purgative and cathartic to live and survive someone else’s suffering. Catharsis is employed by Aristotle in the sixth chapter of his Tragedy as a defense of literature for its ability to release ourselves from the reception of our experience of shock and horror.
Even the Pasolini film, Salo: 120 days of Sodom, which is not a horror proper but is still included on this list, is a visual representation of the Sade novel: the film is full of abject horror, grotesque materiality and torture, and yet the violence in that film is infused with representation— symbolizing fascism, corruption and power. So horror films provide both abject representation and escape, and some—perhaps the Saw and Human Centipede franchises—might be simply what is often referred to as “torture porn.” Brazilian theatre director and pedagogue Augusto Boal argues against theatre as an Aristotelian construct because he saw it in this form as coercion to support the dominant ideology. And while Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, which clearly states that the only liberating theatre is the kind that directly engages the spectator in action, hence allowing the people (spectators) the means to production in order to rehearse and potentially engage in revolution, I wonder if Boal somewhat misjudges the power of the directly uninvolved spectator, or at least his reading of spectators who, while they might not be able to control the production of a fixed text, they do, in fact, control its interpretation. And while theatre and film serve different yet similar purposes, I think it’s important to remember that horror and tragedy and its representations have a history that extends to the dawn of human time.
I’m not justifying our watching of horror films so much as stating that all humans experience fear and nightmare. We as a species will continue to find ways to represent those experiences. Despite our somewhat laid-back lifestyle, my wife and I tend to watch a lot of horrifying and disturbing films. Here’s a list of some of my favourites—although the list is hardly exhaustive—in time for All Hallows’ Eve. I’ve provided micro reviews of each film with horror haikus for the top 13! Enjoy these cinematic nightmares!
50. The Conjuring (2013): Well-crafted horror film that reminded me of classics like The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror.
49. 28 Days Later (2002): One of the best zombie movies out there; in addition, it has a fatal political bend to it.
48. The Descent (2005): Great performances from an all-female cast in this creepy and claustrophobic decent into nightmare.
47. Lost Highway (1997): I love Lynch and this is a bizarre drive worth taking.
46. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992): Not as good as the T.V. show, but it has many of the same themes that make this disturbing and vivid surrealist dream worth viewing.
45. Carrie (1976): Teen angst horror-prom blood fest at its best.
Rewatching Carrie a little while ago I noticed that Buck 65 samples the theme in his song, “The Centaur.”
44. Oculus (2014): A recent film that blurs reality and perception, showing that freight can be more effective than gore.
43. An American Werewolf in London (1981): Pitch perfect genre-crossing horror-comedy.
42. Leprechaun (1993): I could write an essay on all the reasons I love this B horror film. Perhaps the highlight of Jennifer Aniston’s acting career?
41. The Fly (1986): Wow, horror films before all the special effects crap were so inventive. The Fly is a macabre romance with all the early fleshy Cronenberg trademarks. Oh, and Goldblum.
40. Halloween (1978): A Hallowe’en horror film list would feel inadequate without this film that set the bar for modern slasher films like Scream.
39. The Blair Witch Project (1999): Set the standard for all the mock-doc horror films that are now so popular.
38. Scream (1996): Nice homage to early slasher flicks—many of which were Craven’s own—and revival of the genre.
37. Salo: 120 days of Sodom (1975): The film updates Marquis de Sade’s most extreme novel to fascist Italy in the final days of WW II. I can’t actually recommend this film, as you probably won’t enjoy watching it, but it does a great job in showing how we are often complicit voyeurs of the world’s most disturbing and real horrors.
36. Videodrome (1983): Insanely awesome. Videodrome is a disorienting, wholly strange experience about technology and cybernetic flesh and lust that still resonates today.
35. High Tension (Switchblade Romance) (2005): One of the crazy bloodbath French slashers you need to see to believe. The ending could be a little stronger.
34. Funny Games (2007): Michael Haneke remakes his own film with a strong performance from Naomi Watts. Easier to watch than the crime drama Irreversible, but that isn’t saying much. Is this voyeuristic sadism? You decide.
33. Ringu (1998): I gotta go with the Japanese original. Elemental nightmares with a dose of technological anxiety create an unnerving mix.
32. The Cabin in the Woods (2012): Meta-horror flick that is funny, scary, weird and wonderful, often within the same scene.
31. The Innocents (1961): Atmospheric British classic based on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.
30. Se7en (1995): I was a little reluctant to include a mystery thriller because there are many I like even more than Se7en, but Se7en is unique for its disturbing exploration of the seven deadly sins, and does so in a more creative way than most horror films proper do.
29. The Red Riding Trilogy (2010): This British crime drama might not quite classify as horror, but it is an immersive and gritty neo-noir epic based on the Yorkshire Ripper.
28. The Wicker Man (1973): While the Cage remake would likely end up on a slew of worst lists, the original is a classic with a truly unforgettable ending.
27. Drag Me to Hell (2009): Horror veteran Sam Raimi delivers a modern campy thrill ride.
26. Los ojos de Julia/ Julia’s Eyes (2010): Full of Hitchcockian suspense. Your eyes will be glued to the screen.
25. Suspiria (1977): This abstract, glossy, and gory giallo horror is full of phantasmagoric style. The soundtrack is incredible.
Check out the original theme, and then listen to hip-hop producer RJD2’s use of the sample in his track “Weatherpeople”:
24. Let the Right One In (2008): Reenergizes the vampire genre. See Twilight if you want bad horror romance (I assume, I haven’t actually seen it), but watch Let the Right One In if you want an intelligent film with affecting storytelling.
23. Spoorloos/ The Vanishing (1988): The original, of course. I mean how many great foreign horror films has Hollywood unnecessarily remade? This film slowly unravels until we are presented with one of the most shocking endings in any film.
22. Mulholland Drive (2001): “Silencio.” In many ways this film parallels Lynch’s Blue Velvet as we gradually awaken into a living nightmare. Once Pandora’s box is opened the film enters into a mysterious realm that few, if any films, can travel, traverse, and transcend as beautifully and well as this film does.
21. Alien (1979)/ Aliens (1986): A poetic sci-fi horror tour de force. The more visceral Aliens is also fantastic and so I cheated and lumped it in with Alien. I also enjoyed Prometheus (2012).
20. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974): Also host to a surfeit of bad remakes, the original is low-budget exploitation gore at its optimum. Is this where chainsaw nightmare are made?
19. Rosemary’s Baby (1968): Polanski’s iconic thriller is a spellbinding film that will turn expectant mothers to prayer for safe passage.
18. Red White & Blue (2010): Well-acted and taut thriller that is also a severely distressing revenge film with a surfeit of torture. Need I say more?
17. Repulsion (1965): Schizophrenic decent into psychosis. One of Polanski’s best.
16. Antichrist (2009): Shocking and controversial art house horror. Another film on this list that is not for the squeamish. Check out the trailer below:
15. [REC] (2007): My favourite zombie film and one of the best uses of POV found footage.
14. Kill List (2012): Slow burn crime-thriller that gradually becomes a corporal horror.
13. Audition (1999)
the girl of his dreams?
eyes open, kiri, kiri
nope: mistress slasher
12. American Psycho (2000)
classic Christian Bale
11. Martyrs (2008)
witness grisly form
french do more than wine & cheese
take your filmy skin off
10. Eraserhead (1977)
surreal & bizarre
reptilian cries pierce night
parenthood is hard
9. Silence of the Lambs (1991)
thriller: cannibal killer
hear screams: then silence
8. Dead Ringers (1988)
a trifurcated cervix
twins: macabre game
7. Blue Velvet (1986)
she wore blue velvet
Hopper wore a bug-like mask
I read Lynch meditates
6. The Loved Ones (2012)
observe with bright eyes
lobotomize your hard skull
5. The Evil Dead (1981)
old woods . . .
the dead come in
4. The Exorcist (1973)
Friedkin’s freaky film
fact, fiction, or fantasy?
exorcise some faith
3. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
viddy this brothers
blood oozes like eggiweg
on moloko world
2. Psycho (1960)
shower with lights on
psycho thriller that Hitchcock:
master of suspense
1. The Shining (1980)
blood: redrum, RƎⱭЯUM
what’s in room two-three-seven?
surprise: here’s Johnny!
Need a reprieve from all the scary carnage? Here’s The Shining à la Seinfeld with a laugh track.
On this year’s Hallowe’en horror films to watch list: A Tale of Two Sisters, Inside, Pulse, Thirst, Re-Animator, Peeping Tom, Don’t Look Now, The Thing (1982), In the Mouth of Madness, Prince of Darkness, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), I Saw the Devil, and The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. Maybe I’ll have to update my top 50 list next year after watching these. Happy—and spooky—Hallowe’en!
Also, here’s the imdb version.